Venezuelan Opposition Mustn’t Accept Sanctions Scapegoat

Venezuela's opposition must shift the blame for economic failure away from Washington and onto the true culprits. (Correo del Orinoco)
Venezuela’s opposition must shift the blame for economic failure away from Washington and onto the true culprits. (Correo del Orinoco)

EspañolThe decision by US President Barack Obama to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials has caused a public-relations headache — not just for the White House, but for the Venezuelan opposition.

Taking his cue from his predecessor Hugo Chávez, President Nicolás Maduro has vilified the United States for years, declaring the North American nation Venezuela’s greatest enemy. For Chávez, this was easy. George Bush’s approval ratings were low at home and abroad amid the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

However, with Obama as president, it hasn’t been as straightforward: he can’t be accused of being the “white gringo” enemy of Latin America. However, Obama’s executive order has given Maduro the ammunition he needs to portray the old enemy as plotting a coup and waging economic war against Venezuela.

Nevertheless, the sanctions are absolutely the correct course of action. The Venezuelan government sustains itself by means of a powerful coalition that includes narco-trafficking and money laundering, which needs to be dismantled.

According to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, US$2 billion worth of revenues by state petroleum firm PDVSA have been siphoned off to a money-laundering scheme at a bank in Andorra. There have also been reports of illicit deposits at a Swiss bank to the tune of $14 billion.

This powerful criminal network is one of the principal reasons why the opposition cannot gain much traction in Venezuela. In previous articles, I’ve suggested that in order to break the power of this grouping, a powerful and credible actor must emerge to offer their members more than what the current government appears to offer.

In the short term, however, the cost to the individual in sustaining this state of affairs will only to increase.

Managing Public Opinion

The dilemma lies in the fact that these actions reinforce Maduro’s rhetoric about imperial aggression. They provide the perfect scapegoat to justify inflation and the shortage of food and vital basic goods. It’s proof of the economic war, in which no one believed up until now.

This presents a challenge for the opposition. On the one hand, they have to be careful in blaming Maduro for the fresh sanctions and being seen to support US “interference.” On the other, they can’t condemn Obama’s executive order outright, because that would indicate tacit consent to Maduro’s atrocities.

The opposition should emphasize the real reason why there’s no food or medicine: an economic model that favors those who are “connected.” Former minister Jorge Giordani has himself admitted that “more than $25 billion was embezzled from Cadivi,” the national currency exchange administration, since the beginning of Chavismo a little over 15 years ago.

Rather than take advantage of the huge oil boom, the Venezuelan government allowed the connected few to get richer in exchange for absolute loyalty. The opposition must make this injustice plain: the reason why Venezuelans are forced to wait for hours for basic foodstuffs is due to home-grown corruption and embezzlement.

It’s a simple matter of setting out the facts. While corrupt officials have deposited over $16 million in private European accounts, mothers are scouring empty shelves to find food for their children. While the sanctioned members of the Venezuelan security forces hold bank accounts in the United States (now rightly frozen), the rest of the population are allowed only a meager amount of US dollars.

The current US sanctions restrict the access of a select few officials to bank accounts and property in the United States. Thousands of Venezuelans, meanwhile, are unable to access medication for hypertension, HIV, and other manageable conditions due to government venality and incompetence.

The sanctions increase the cost of supporting Maduro. They apply pressure at a critical point, which may prompt significant Chavista elements to negotiate with the opposition over parliamentary elections, a public referendum, or another way of restoring real democracy to Venezuela.

However, managing public opinion in this process will be no easy task. The risk is that the polemic over sanctions will further entrench Maduro in his obstinate course.

The challenges to the opposition leadership are clear, and they should face them head on. In an era of media censorship for Venezuela, they must spread their message door to door and person to person. It’s never been more crucial to rally support for democratic change.

Translated by Thalia C. Siqueiros. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez and Laurie Blair.

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